Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Games To Play Before You Die: #11 - Little Nemo: The Dream Master

Little Nemo: The Dream Master (1990)
Publisher: Capcom

(“I told you last night that you would dream if you ate those doughnuts.
But you would not listen.” -- Nemo’s Mother)

Little Nemo in Slumberland, if you’re not familiar with it, was a comic strip by Winsor McCay that ran in newspapers from 1905 to 1914, enjoyed a brief revival in the 1920s, and and then fell, for the most part, into obscurity. The comic strips of the early 20th century were a much more elaborate affair than they are today, and McCay’s tale of a young boy who finds himself lost in increasingly troubling and surreal dreamscapes were, by today's standards, simultaneously amateurish and beautifully rendered. Recent years have seen a renewed interest in McCay’s work on Little Nemo, along with his previous strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (which followed a similar format), but in 1990, outside of a select circle of aficionados of turn-of-the-century cartoons, both creator and comic strip were unknown.

So it was an odd choice for a licensed Nintendo game, to say the least. The fact that the game was based on a Japanese animated film, Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland, did little to quell the absurdity of its existence since, as it turns out, North American audiences were about as aware of trending Asian animated cinema as they were turn-of-the-century comic strips. We knew it had to have been based on something, but -- being blithely unaware of the source material -- we simply took it at face value instead of looking into it too deeply (this was before the ubiquitous omniscience of Wikipedia, remember, so trying to figure out where a game came from, and what it might have been based on, required a sight more legwork than it does today). Whatever it might have been, one thing that was certain was that it was a tight, well-executed and devilishly difficult Capcom platformer.

With the benefit of time, though, and a heightened cultural awareness of Winsor McCay’s signature work, revisiting Little Nemo: The Dream Master reveals a game packed to the brim with highly appropriate weirdness. Nemo feeds the various dream-creatures that he encounters with candy from an apparently bottomless bag, which not only tames them but, in proper dream fashion, turns them into frog- or bee- or mole-themed outfits for him to wear, with accompanying abilities. Nemo traverses a number of surprisingly large and creatively-designed levels, including an upside-down house, a speeding toy train and nighttime suburban rooftops, searching for keys to unlock the door at the end of each stage. The sheer number of possibilities engendered by the different animals Nemo tames in obtaining keys and solving puzzles is impressive, considering that the typical platformers of the day (even those produced by Capcom, who were widely regarded to be the masters of the 8-bit platformer genre) were fairly linear in construction.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Capcom's Nintendo platformers (also known as sidescrollers, hop-and-boppers, or jumping games) were known for three things. First, they all had fantastic soundtracks, as anyone who remembers the chiptune scores to DuckTales, Mega Man or Strider will attest to. Secondly, they were built on a very solid, stable engine; Capcom had a very thorough QA testing process, and bugs and flaws in their games were a distinct rarity. And finally, they were really bloody hard.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master is not an easy game. There was no save option, no password entry screen, enemies spawned endlessly, and spikes and pits were unforgiving in their placement. Playing it again today is an exercise in frustration verging on masochism, until we remember that back in the day, every game was hard (although perhaps not quite this hard). In a world of walkthroughs, cheat codes and god mode, we’ve forgotten what it was like to be truly challenged by what amounts to a children’s game, and this is one of the reasons that Little Nemo: The Dream Master deserves to be remembered.

Little Nemo was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990, at the tail end of Nintendo era, and stands as one of the last great games for that console.

(Following the end of the strip's run in 1927, Little Nemo was not officially seen in any media format (with the exception of reprints of the strip) until 1989, when the Japanese animated adaptation Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland was released, a period of 62 years. Little Nemo: The Dream Master was a licensed tie-in to that film, which did not receive a North American release until 1993, and even then to very little fanfare.)

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